Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, a new TV movie revisiting one of early America’s most famous murder cases, arrives on Lifetime Saturday night with the tagline “It’s Time to Bury the Hatchet.” That should be enough to tip you that this isn’t going to be a conventional retelling of a gory incident that previously inspired an Emmy-winning 1975 TV movie called The Legend of Lizzie Borden, which was anchored by an electrifying Elizabeth Montgomery in the title role.
Indie film darling Christina Ricci (The Addams Family) is Lizzie on Lifetime in a decidedly alternative take on the famous story. Here, Lizzie isn’t the frustrated spinster being abused by her father and stepmother. Instead, she’s a rebel who is seething at her town’s inclination to shoehorn her into the role of bland, wholesome Sunday School teacher. That frustration leads her to act out in several ways, blowing far too much money on sexy frocks to wear at the soirees she sneaks out at night to attend, swilling cocktails liberally and lying to her friends about her “evil” father (Stephen McHattie). In fact, Lizzie keeps saying, her dad has so many enemies that she worries someone might … do something to him.
At home, she sneers openly at her stepmother (Sara Botsford) and, when her father quietly tries to curb Lizzie’s behavior, she switches into a creepily seductive mode.
“You don’t want me to become anything, do you?” Lizzie purrs to her father. “You just want me to stay here forever … with you.”
Given that Ricci stops just short of sucking on McHattie’s fingers, and the fact that Lizzie is airing just a week after Flowers in the Attic, at this point I started to wonder whether January had been designated as Incest Month on Lifetime.
By the end of the first half hour, both parental units have been dispatched by ax blows to their faces. Lizzie claims to have been in the family barn when her father and stepmother were murdered in the Borden home, but several things don’t seem to add up. For one thing, the stepmother was murdered more than an hour before Lizzie’s father, in a completely different part of the house. (As a prosecutor will point out during the trial, if the father had been killed first, his estate ultimately would have passed to the stepmother’s family, instead of Lizzie).
Then there’s the matter of a dark red stain on the skirt of the dress Lizzie was wearing that day. She says it was stew, but before the police can admit the garment into evidence, Lizzie – oops! – burns it.
Most of the rest of the TV movie follows the events of the murder trial, and it’s here that Ricci’s performance becomes a distraction. I don’t think I’ve ever been bored watching Ricci at work, but I also don’t know that I’ve ever seen her give a performance that isn’t steeped in irony, which is true here as well. That being the case, I never was able to figure out what was going on with this Lizzie. Is her confusion all an act, or is she, against all odds, being railroaded for a crime she didn’t commit?
A further jarring note is the blaring contemporary rock music that punctuates several scenes and knocks us right out of the story’s historical context. I’m guessing the filmmakers were trying to underscore Lizzie’s pre-feminist hunger for “self-actualization” – on the eve of her verdict, she tells her older sister, Emma (Clea Duvall), that she’s confident the jury will acquit her, because “No one in this town thinks I am capable of anything.” (Especially wielding an ax, since Ricci is so tiny that she looks incapable of wielding a melon baller).
In some respects, then, this Lizzie Borden is a mess, but I have to admit, it’s an interesting mess. Production values are above average, and the large cast – which also includes Billy Campbell as Lizzie’s defense attorney and Gregg Henry as the prosecutor – digs into their roles with gusto. Nearly 40 years after its premiere, that old Elizabeth Montgomery TV movie is still a far better character-driven take on this fascinating story, but Lizzie Borden Took an Ax makes for a thoroughly painless way to kill a couple of hours.